Monday, November 20, 2006

Joanna Newsom At the Black Cat

For all her quaint balladry and delicate good looks, Joanna Newsom proved to be a fierce presence when she sat at her harp Friday night and cast a spell on the filled-to-the-brim Black Cat crowd.

Scattered applause greeted the first notes of "Bridges and Balloons" and "The Book of Right-On," from the young San Francisco folkie's "The Milk-Eyed Mender" (2004). The claps then gave way to hush when Newsom's warble, evoking the intangible clarion quality of Bjork's, cut through the air.

Many craned their necks to see her, and Newsom was a sight, stunningly sweet-looking with ivory sweater and cherry-red lips and halo of strawberry hair. She caressed and plucked at her harp passionately, and coaxed out bassy booms not typically associated with the instrument.

Her spell could have easily broken when, after a few songs, her four-piece band came out (there were guitar, glockenspiel, drums and other assorted noisemakers), and Newsom announced they'd be playing "Ys," her meandering new record that doesn't have a single song under seven minutes. But live, the epic poems felt like true stories experienced firsthand, as Newsom spun tales of birds and running and herbs that bloom for just one day (poetic touches that befit a onetime creative-writing student).

With the finale, "Cosmia," she did what she said she would: play all of "Ys," and in order, at that.

Then the audience, having indulged Newsom, cheered and stomped for a goodwill gesture in return: an encore. No such luck. When spurned fans finally gave up and trickled out (the clapping went on for roughly 10 minutes before the house lights flickered on), Newsom's denial had tarnished slightly the otherwise sparkling night.

-- Lavanya Ramanathan

Guitarist Ana Vidovic

Croatia's top exports, according to official statistics, are transport equipment, textiles, chemicals, foodstuffs and fuels. Add to that list the young Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic, an exceptionally gifted and interesting musician who brought a program of mostly Spanish music to the Westmoreland Congregational United Church on Saturday night, as part of the Marlow Guitar Series.

Vidovic -- who, at 25, is about to release her sixth recording -- has been steadily building a reputation as one of the most technically accomplished young players around. And her playing on Saturday was virtually immaculate -- detailed, precise and polished.

But this was no mere virtuosic display. Vidovic's playing is nuanced and intensely personal, both deeply felt and deeply thought. And if it sometimes lacked the stormy depths that make Spanish guitar music so satisfying, it made up for it with real poetry, sensitivity and impeccable taste. Not one note was overplayed, not one gesture milked for effect.

The program was easy on the ears, if not exactly groundbreaking: the familiar "Suite Castellana" and the "Sonatina" of Federico Moreno Torroba, Isaac Albeniz's ubiquitous "Asturias," a couple of Heitor Villa-Lobos's ear-bending etudes, Manuel Ponce's "Sonatina Meridional" and Agustin Barrios Mangore's "La Catedral" -- a work performed so often in Washington that it seems to be required by law. The only soft spot in the program was a sentimental, pseudo-Spanish pastiche by Croatian composer Stjepan Sulek called "The Troubadours Three." Vidovic brought out everything that the piece had to offer -- and possibly more -- before ending the evening with Francisco Tarrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" as an encore.

-- Stephen Brookes

Music From Bard Conservatory

Students and faculty from New York's Bard College Conservatory of Music set aside their academic roles on Saturday evening at the Library of Congress and collaborated in deliberate performances of 19th-century chamber works.

Though teachers and students delivered equally polished performances, the conceptual interpretations of Brahms's String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111, and Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, were driven largely by the professors -- violinist Ida Kavafian in the former and pianist Melvin Chen in the latter.

Under Kavafian's tenacious lead, the Brahms sounded as robust as a young red wine, full of tannic bite but lacking in complexities.

Second violinist Tina Zhang tempered the fire with subtleties when she could, often generating response from cellist Peter Wiley, who grounded the work with shapely phrases. Violists Shuangshuang Liu and Liyuan Liu rounded out the ensemble with warm tones.

The Schumann, on the other hand, was more of a mature red wine, full of lyrical expression and sophistication. If Chen's technique wasn't always perfectly clean, he still inspired focused and refined ensemble playing from his team, violinists Luosha Fang and Yuan Ma, violist Liyuan Liu and cellist Robert Martin.

Pianist Jeremy Denk's darkly intense performance of Liszt's Sonata in B Minor was a captivating and probing journey of sonorities, emotions and technical brilliance. The faculty member capitalized upon passages that sounded improvisatory, in fits of consternation, whimsy, romance and joy.

-- Grace Jean

Bill Frisell at Lisner

Bill Frisell is nothing if not eclectic. He's been the most inventive and adventurous guitarist of the avant-jazz scene for most of the past three decades, absorbing everything from bebop to country to Motown to the bluesy riffs of central Mali and incorporating it all into his own cutting-edge work.

Original, sure, but luminously beautiful as well, as the guitarist showed on Friday night at Lisner Auditorium. Frisell led his eight-piece Unspeakable Orchestra through a set of works so new that most of them hadn't even been named yet. The evening opened with drifting layers of sound as delicate and elusive as the start of a dream. It then took off into a two-hour explosion of everything from bluesy meditations to get-outta-the-way eruptions of pure joy.

Well-known pieces like Thelonious Monk's "Jackie-ing" segued seamlessly into Frisell's own compositions, while shades of everyone from Ali Farka Toure to Ennio Morricone drifted freely in and out. And yet the set made deep intuitive sense and felt as natural as if it were being improvised on the spot.

Frisell is a consummate virtuoso but the archetypal anti-performer; comfortably rumpled in the world's least flattering plaid shirt, he stood off to the side, playing to his band rather than the audience. Taking only a few solos, he deferred to the Unspeakable players -- not a bad thing, since they're among the best on the new-music scene.

Greg Tardy, on tenor sax and clarinet, generated a lot of the evening's fire, while violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts filled out the string section with wit and impressive chops. But bassist Tony Scherr stole the show. Self-taught, he takes a drunken-samurai approach to his instrument; you constantly think he's on the verge of disaster, but he produces some of the strongest, most imaginative bass playing you could ever hope to hear. The perfect partner for Frisell, in other words.

-- Stephen Brookes

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